Toll Of Oil Drilling Felt In Peru's Amazon Basin

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Annie Murphy/NPR

Ana Hualinga, a local leader of the indigenous Achuar people in San Cristobal, Peru, stands in a former community garden and tree nursery. She says the land was recently cleared by the oil company Pluspetrol, without consulting the community.

Thousands of miles from the Gulf of Mexico spill, the indigenous people of Peru have been living with oil exploration and its effects for decades. Villagers in the Amazon basin complain of health problems and forest clear-cutting. But the government says the energy resources are essential and that oil exploration and drilling must continue.

In the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, thousands of miles from the BP rig pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills have been a fact of life for more than 30 years.

In villages like San Cristobal, the indigenous Achuar people believe their maladies are caused by exposure to oil. They suffer fainting spells, vomiting, chronic diarrhea, headaches and skin infections.

Isac Sandy, 25, is tall and shy, and got married last year. He has frequent headaches, and every other day he gets an injection to relieve the symptoms of an unknown skin condition. If he doesn't get the shot, his skin breaks out in a spotty white rash, and his entire body swells.

"There's a stream where we always go to fish, and it's always had oil on top. We catch fish there and eat them. The fish drink the water, and since we eat them, the oil must get into us that way," he says.

What Is Causing Heath Problems?

This riverside village of open-air, wood-and-thatch homes is remote, and medical research is seldom carried out here. But government doctor Alan Castro thinks health problems in San Cristobal have causes other than oil. Castro says he believes it can almost all be explained by malnutrition, which is widespread.

But a Peruvian government study published in 2006 found that most indigenous people living along this river -- the Rio Corrientes -- had unhealthy levels of lead in their blood and 95 percent exceeded the healthy limit for cadmium. Lead and cadmium are associated with oil spills, which have been happening here for decades.

Whether the cause of these health problems is oil spills, other changes brought by outsiders, or a combination of the two, the Achuars' quality of life has worsened since oil companies arrived and little is being done to help them. In Peru, the Achuar people number about 12,500.

Oil Exploration, Drilling

The bustling town of Trompeteros is the base of operations for Pluspetrol, an Argentine oil and gas production company operating in the area. Trompeteros has electricity, running water, sewage systems, telephone service and even Internet.

A few minutes downriver, next to Pluspetrol's paved runway, the village of San Cristobal doesn't have electricity. The roof of the local school is literally caving in.

Daniel Hualinga, the village elder, says, "We've asked the company to help out and they tell us they have nothing -- that the oil revenue is running low."

About a dozen students sit on plywood benches in a house that serves as a makeshift school. Students study in Spanish and the indigenous Achuar language. During music class, they learn Achuar songs, which are traditionally sung to their gardens, to their animals and to the forest.

Like their parents, most of the kids here suffer from the chronic stomachaches, fainting, vomiting and fevers. Some also have developmental problems.

'There Will Always Be A Risk'

Peruvian oil industry analyst Aurelio Ochoa says that spills are an unavoidable part of the oil business. "These are human projects, so there will always be a risk, as clean as the operation might be," he says. "Accidents happen, and they're going to keep on happening -- here, in Alaska, in Louisiana, wherever."

The point is, he says, the company should be held responsible.

But the dense foliage and river labyrinths of the Amazon are a world away from the capital of Lima and Peru's legal system, according to human-rights lawyer Miguel Jugo.

"Indigenous people have always suffered from inaction on the part of the state. Their rights are constantly violated," Jugo says. "If the state starts to consult with indigenous people, the state will become responsible for meeting their requests, and the government doesn't want that."

Indigenous People Demand A Role

Protests by indigenous peoples exploded across Peru's Amazon last June and confrontations with police left dozens dead. According to the 2007 census, Peru is home to at least 60 indigenous ethnic groups, most of them living in the Amazon River basin.

The protests were sparked by government decrees meant to open up huge portions of the Amazon rain forest to development, but the government had failed to consult the indigenous people who live there.

A year later, a new law has been created to require consultation with the indigenous, but it still hasn't gone into effect. Meanwhile, more petroleum concessions are up for bidding -- in all, three-quarters of the Peruvian Amazon is now open to private business.

The population of Peru's Loreto region -- where much of the oil exploration is taking place -- is about 900,000.

When indigenous communities began to take a stand against big companies operating in their territory, President Alan Garcia wrote an editorial criticizing their position. He used the fable "The Dog and the Manger" to make his point.

In the story, a dog falls asleep in a manger and wakes up to bark at the cows who want to eat the hay -- even though the dog himself can't eat the stuff. The moral of the story is: Don't begrudge others something you can't enjoy yourself. In the editorial, the hay was Peru's natural riches, and the president compared the spiteful dog to Peru's indigenous people.

Pluspetrol, the oil company, declined to comment for this story, as did the Peruvian state-owned oil company.

In response to an interview request, Environment Minister Antonio Brack released a statement saying oil drilling will not destroy the Amazon rain forest and that Peru must also worry about its energy security. He notes that Peru does need to "improve the participation of local communities."

Relations Getting Worse

In San Cristobal, relations between the Achuar people, the oil company and the Peruvian state are only getting worse.

Ana Hualinga stands in a clearing surrounded by stumps, in what was a garden and tree nursery. Speaking in her native Achuar language, she explains in heated tones how a few weeks ago the oil company razed and appropriated this community plot to expand their airport, without consulting the people who farm it.

Nearby, huge black helicopters operated by the oil company rise out of the jungle at regular intervals, drowning out all other sounds, then sweeping off into the distance.

For now, the Achuar are doing the best they can to keep tabs on the oil company.

"Up through March of this year, we registered three serious spills, and two smaller ones. The earth here is contaminated -- and it will never be completely healthy again, never," says Wilson Sandy, who works for an indigenous monitoring program that tracks oil spills.

Ochoa, the oil analyst, says that the future of this place will depend on who puts down the money to control it, be it big business or environmentalists.

"Remember, Peru has natural resources and it's looking to develop its economy," Ochoa says. "If ecological conservation were profitable, we could do that. But who is going to step up to it?"

For the moment, much of this grand ecosystem is still a vast, green expanse of rivers, plant life and animals. And for the Achuar people, the Amazon rain forest is not a conservation project nor an economic bonanza. It is home.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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